University tuition fees for undergraduates were abolished in Ireland in 1996. This paper examines the effect of this reform on the socio-economic gradient (SES) to determine whether the reform was successful in achieving its objective of promoting educational equality. It finds that the reform clearly did not have that effect. It is also shown that the university/SES gradient can be explained by differential performance at second level which also explains the gap between the sexes. Students from white collar backgrounds do significantly better in their final second level exams than the children of blue-collar workers. The results are very similar to recent findings for the UK. I also find that certain demographic characteristics have large negative effects on school performance i.e. having a disabled or deceased parent. The results show that the effect of SES on school performance is generally stronger for those at the lower end of the conditional distribution of academic attainment.
1. The paper shows how the abolition of university fees in 1995/96 did not help the chances of poorer children getting into university.
2. The paper also explains why this is the case:
- There was (& still is) excess demand for places: there is a shortage of places not students.
- The fee reduction benefitted well-off students, low income ones would have been exempt.
- Most importantly: the paper shows that it’s how students do in the Leaving that matters. The fact that the low income kids do worse in the Leaving is why they are less likely to progress. Changing fees didn’t change that.
- The paper documents precisely how students from better off backgrounds do better in the Leaving.
- If your father is a professional, count on getting about 90 points more than if your father is a manual worker.
- If your father is “other white collar” count on getting about 50 points more.
- If your father is unemployed that “costs” you about 30 points.
- The paper also shows
- That it’s the difference in Leaving Cert performance that explains why girls are more likely to progress to university
- That if a student’s father is disabled that their points are about 50 points lower
- That if one of their parents is deceased that their points are about 40 points lower.
- A clear policy implication of this paper is that attempts to tackle inequalities in university access that do not address these performance differences at the Leaving Certificate won’t solve the problem.